Saturday, May 30, 2015

Who's In Charge?

One of the biggest problems with mainstream country music was starkly revealed earlier this week with controversial comments made by radio programming consultant Keith Hill.  In an interview with industry publication Country Aircheck, Hill had these comments regarding the key to success of mainstream country radio stations:

"If you want to make ratings in country radio, take the females out.  The reason mainstream country radio generates more quarter hours from female to male listeners at the rate of 70 to 75 percent, and women like male artists.  The expectation is we're principally a male format with a smaller female component.  I've got about 40 music databases in front of me, and the percentage of females in the one with the most is 19 percent.  Trust me, I play great female records, and we've got some right now; they're just not the lettuce in our salad.  The lettuce is Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that.  The tomatoes of our salad are the females." (Read the full article taken from The Tennessean here)

Now, setting aside the fruit and vegetable analogy, if we examine these and other comments in the article, it reveals what I and I'm sure many others can see is a real problem with the state of country radio.  If we look back over the years, we can see that this problem has existed for what could be considered generations, if we really look back on it.  Focusing on the recent past, the problem I can see is this ridiculous notion of consultants steering the ship.   The consultants at radio are in essence telling the listener what they would like to hear, when the reality is it should be the listener directing what gets played and what doesn't.  That is to say, it shouldn't be so much about the name of the singer that automatically gets the record played on radio, it should be about the quality of the song and whether or not people like it.  Male or female shouldn't play any part of determining whether or not the song gets played.  If the song is good enough and the people respond, it's on the air.  In my view, it was this attitude that took legendary artists like George Jones, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton and more currently Alan Jackson off the air over the years.  Those artists and others like them were releasing high quality material, only to summarily dismissed at radio.

The comments from Keith Hill this week have drawn comparisons to other comments a few months ago from former Sony Music executive Gary Overton where he said he often reminds his staff "if you're not on country radio, you don't exist."  Overton's comments drew the requisite firestorm on twitter and other media outlets, but I don't see the parallel between the two.  In looking at the big picture, Gary Overton is in a different field than Hill.  While I don't agree with the comments stated by Overton, I can see where he was coming from in making those comments.  His job is to sell records at a major record label, where profit and the bottom line are key.  It seems more of a statement to motivate his staff to get out and sell the single to radio, sell the record, create a buzz for the artists, and so on.  It's an inaccurate statement to be sure, as the advent of Facebook, YouTube and the internet in general has made it possible for independent artists to not only survive, but thrive in the music business.  As a veteran of the music business, I found Overton's comments were the sign of a more outdated way of thinking than a total insult to artists like Jason Isbell and Charlie Robison, both of whom took great offence to Overton's comments.  

As of this writing, the story has not gone away and you can keep following on The Tennessean, Nashville's daily newspaper.  Since the comments were first reveals, Hill has clarified his comments in an interview with the Tennessean.  Unfortunately, the backlash has included death threats, which is nonsense.  His colleagues have spoken against his philosophy, with Country Music Television president Brian Phillips stating that the industry should stop creating these arbitrary and imaginary rules that hinder the business in the long run.  

To close off this piece, I think it's best to let one of the pioneer's of this business say all that needs to be said. Take from it what you will.  Enjoy everyone!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Album Review: Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, "The Travelling Kind"

If one were to examine a list of all the greats that have contributed to, and indeed built the very foundation of, the Americana genre, that list would most certainly include Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell.  Indeed, it could be reasonably argued, that Harris and Crowell are in the top ten of the most influential Americana artists in its still relatively young history as an acknowledged musical genre.  Which makes it all the more special that they have chosen to collaborate once again for “The Travelling Kind” (Nonesuch).  Released today, this is the second collaborative album for the two and it comes just two years since their first effort together, “Old Yellow Moon.” 

Their history together is well known, with Crowell once performing as a member of Harris’ famous Hot Band. That was some forty years ago.  It’s this history the two have together that makes a project like “The Travelling Kind” and its predecessor special.  In fact, it could be argued that the title track is based somewhat on that friendship and history the two artists share together.  Co-writing seven of the eleven tracks on the album, on can only hope that this collaboration will continue in the years to come.

Among the tracks that the two didn’t write together is an excellent cover of the Rodney Crowell written “No Memories Hanging Round.”  The song was originally a top 20 hit in 1979 for his then-wife Rosanne Cash and Bobby Bare.  The soaring beauty of Harris’ voice, harmonized with that of Crowell give the song a fresh take that stands right alongside the hit version.  The Lucinda Williams penned “I Just Wanted To See You So Bad” is so good and so perfectly performed musically and vocally that it surpasses the outstanding original version.

This album of course is more than just covers of past hits.  It is a deep album exploring many themes and stages of life as only veteran artists can.  “You Can’t Say We Didn’t Try” is a heartbreaking story of love lost, written by two artists who have lived through the tale. “Higher Mountains” is beautifully performed as only Emmylou Harris could deliver, and delves in to facing the unknown of what’s next at the end of a life well lived. The project rounds itself out completely with a couple of songs that are just plain fun, with the rockabilly influenced “Bring It On Home To Memphis” and the Cajun spiced “La Danse de la Joie.”

It is rare when two artists of this caliber get together to work on an excellent, award winning album and still remain steadfast friends.  That happened when Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell created a masterpiece with “Old Yellow Moon.”  It is rarer still, when those same two artists come back together two years later and create another masterpiece that surpasses the previous release.  That has happened with “The Travelling Kind.”  This album is a piece of art, an outstanding collection of stories from two of the greatest and most influential artists of our time.  This is an album of the year candidate, in any year. 

In the meantime, before you go out and pick up "The Travelling Kind", check out this great video courtesy of the Late Show with David Letterman, featuring Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Steve Martin, Amos Lee and Mark O'Connor.